In conversation with CARE Australia

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As part of our Blog series 'The Big Conversation Series', we spoke with Peter Walton (CEO of CARE Australia) & Diana Nicholson (KWM Partner + Board Director of CARE) to ask 'What are the challenges & opportunities facing the for-purpose sector in these uncertain times?

Peter and Diana spoke about how their organisation is continually adapting and responding to change, mobilising broad support and staying focused on the short, medium and long term goals of a leading international aid organisation that works around the globe to save lives and defeat poverty.

Dan: Peter you became CEO of CARE Australia at the start of this year – what's it been like taking over the reins of a large not-for-profit organisation during a time of incredible uncertainty and great challenge?

Peter: I'd have to say that this is the most unusual start to a role I think I've ever had but it's also been quite an exceptional time for CARE as an organisation -  it's the first time in our history that we have simultaneously launched an emergency in every country that we operate in whilst also grappling with all of the challenges that COVID is presenting to how we work in Australia. At times, it's almost like we're dealing with an existential challenge but then at other times, it's felt like an opportunity to bring out the best in CARE. CARE is an organisation that responds to complexity, conflicts and natural disasters. This has been an opportunity for us to recalibrate how we think and put all of the sort of skills and techniques that we've applied to many other different contexts to use in a really compressed space of time.

Dan: Diana, you were appointed to the board of CARE Australia in 2019. How are you settling into your role, what attracted you to being a board member in the first place and what are the board's key priorities?

Diana: The reason I was attracted to CARE is that it aligns with a lot of my core values. I have a long-held and deep belief that one should contribute to the not-for-profit sector as a whole. For me, CARE offers this in a number of ways. It responds to people in need and it responds with competence and care. It does so with enormous kindness but more importantly, practical focus. Another part of our programme is very much focused on making sustainable change that will actually drive improvement and long-term conditions that allow communities to take things into their own hands. A lot of that is also driven by women, which gets things done quicker and more sustainably.

The ride as a board member has been extraordinary. We've seen some amazing things. We've been extraordinarily flexible in being able to deal with some of the challenges. Like every other business, we've had to look at our soul and what we can afford to do sustainably and well. That's a great opportunity to focus but is also an enormous challenge.

Peter: There's a great quote from the former Secretary of State in the US Madeleine Albright – she basically said that 'people are talking to governments now using 21st century technology, governments are listening on 20th century technology and responding with 19th century policy'. Things are changing at such an astonishing pace and the organisations that are able to embrace the need to significantly change and really be open to doing things differently will succeed, whether that's working from or embracing digital.

To Diana's point, shifts in power that are being forced upon a sector that would ordinarily have a very different approach to responding to a natural disaster, for example. The concept of 'locally-led' has been forced upon the humanitarian and development system and that's, in many ways, a really, really good thing. Sometimes, great things come out of deep challenges and I think we're seeing that with COVID.

Dan: It's also been said that of course at this time there's tremendous opportunity that comes out of situations like this, particularly for the for-purpose sector. Do you agree with that? Do you think that there's a myriad of opportunities there and if so, what is CARE Australia's thinking both from a strategic and operational standpoint?

Peter: Yeah, I do. I think it's a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty scenario but I think the shifts around working differently in the future is clearly an opportunity. We've all been able to demonstrate how we can shift to more flexible working. The possibilities around that in terms of inclusion and diversity, such as employing people with mobility issues or people with carer responsibilities, are game-changing.

In terms of CARE's work, we really want to maximise our impact. I think the organisations that are able to rethink how they can be successful in the new world will quite possibly thrive. Localisation is a fundamental change for the nature of our work. For example, under normal circumstances in the past when there was a major natural disaster such as a tropical cyclone, what is typical is for hundreds of organisations to flood into a country to offer support. That's great in terms of altruistic intent but it often bypasses local structures, local systems and local decision-making. When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu two years ago, there were 135 international organisations operating in a country with just over a quarter of a million people. Many of them hadn't worked there before. I think about the bushfires and other natural disasters in Australia – we would be absolutely aghast if hundreds of organisations came in here and started telling us how to do things and bypassing the restoration of normality here. There are real lessons for us to think about the opportunity to shift power and shift the role of organisations, like CARE, to responding locally and assisting internationally in a complimentary way. We need to make fundamental pivots to support local communities and organisations.

Dan: Data published recently suggested 2019 was one of the worst fundraising years on record and many charities were already struggling prior to COVID-19. Social Ventures Australia research showed that charities have very little in terms of cash reserves. Of course, COVID-19 meant that many organisations have had to pivot their fundraising activities while still dealing with fewer and fewer volunteers. Diana, in your view, what should charities be doing right now to adapt and to respond in such uncertain times?

Diana: I think there's a there's a combination of things. One is immediately looking at your own business dynamics. You immediately have to do an assessment of what you can afford to do, which is separate to the fundraising issue but absolutely critical to it because if you don't have a sound economic base then you are already at a disadvantage.

The second part of it is: how do you fundraise? My view is that the bushfires and COVID-19 have shown that we do understand our obligations to each other as a community. But we need to find more modern systems of fundraising, such as embracing social media and thinking about fundraising differently. 

Peter: We also see research that demonstrates that the generosity of Australians is amongst the highest in the world. What that tells us is that the way you engage is really important. We frequently see that people are aligned with issues and causes rather than organisations; organisations like CARE need to play an important brokerage role to connect people with these interests.

Partnerships should also be beyond receiving grants and delivering – we should be looking at leveraging the unique skills of other organisations in a partnership to achieve different forms of social contribution. Across industry and leadership, we see people that want to make a difference. Whether that's talking to banking institutions around how cash transfers can make a difference to vulnerable people, insurance companies around looking at insurance products, or law firms on breaking down legislative barriers around things like housing, land, property, and other humanitarian barriers.

To be effective in this space, we need to increasingly embrace the idea that it isn't just about traditional philanthropy. It takes a different approach towards the issue of: how do we actually achieve the impact that we're seeking?

Dan: I might go back to one of the earlier points related to the perception that the international humanitarian aid system is 'broken'. Is that what you were alluding to before, Peter, when you were talking about organisations coming into a country post-disaster and operating sometimes without the requisite permissions and endorsements?

Peter: I think it is bigger than that and saying it's broken sometimes does a disservice to the huge amount of incredible work that organisations in this space do. But that statement does resonate with me because I don't think current approaches are really fit for purpose. For example, in recent years, I believe there's been a 40% shortfall in the resources needed to meet the humanitarian challenges today, yet over the next 10 years we're going to see increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, prolonged conflict, more displaced people and the worsening of climate change. If we're falling short today and we're going to be facing all that over the next 10 years, something clearly needs to change.

We need to start thinking about different approaches that help position us to meet the future needs, not just today's needs. We can't just be treating the symptoms and doing so retrospectively; we have to actually try to reduce risk and need to build up resilience in advance.

Diana: That's a really important point for people to understand. We need to think ahead as to where help will be needed to understand the challenges holistically. For example, just the consequences of climate change for a number of the communities that we work with are just going to be huge. The amount of people in need and the issues surrounding climate change are a complex challenge, so the more that we think ahead and meet the challenge from a position of readiness, would be essential to assist with any response.

Dan: Diana, given your position as a board member of CARE Australia but also your role as a senior partner at a top tier law firm, how do you think that corporate-Australia can better mobilise the skills that it has, to help charities not only survive, but thrive, post-COVID?

Diana: I think corporate support of pure-knowledge makes a big difference in terms of sophistication and delivering results without requiring funding. Whether that's our firm stepping up in local legal issues during COVID or some of CARE's board members using their HR expertise to assist in recruitment. The other core role is by driving a value system. We spend a lot of time on corporate culture in Australia, which benefits the not-for-profit sector because it drives a values-led society. In terms of communicating these values, our organisation is focusing on the future and preventing disaster as well as assisting in disaster. If we can leverage this communication in the corporate world, that will really help us reach a wider audience and perhaps fill the 'old-fashioned' funding void.

Peter: CARE Australia feels incredibly grateful to be supported by King & Wood Mallesons and I think that the type of support that we get really benefits us in a couple of ways. Clearly, the pro bono support across all of the areas of expertise add such incredible value to our work. I also think that there are increasing opportunities for the support to move away from purely philanthropic support or pro bono support, but also into leveraging the unique skill sets of organisations to help solve complex problems such as the legislative barriers surrounding women's economic empowerment and workers' rights and dignified work. When we we start to think differently around the nature of partnership, the opportunities are huge.

Dan: I wanted to discuss another topic which has been getting plenty of attention in recent times – it's around structural racism. Structural racism, of course, is not a new issue in Australian philanthropy or indeed global. It's also not an issue that many people talk openly about. Is that a topic that you or CARE Australia are wanting to discuss or think about?

Peter: Absolutely. I'd even go further to say that if it isn't a topic that's front and centre for all organisations in this space then we've got a bigger problem. Whether we're talking about institutional racism, the Me Too movement or the Black Lives Matter movement, what we're actually talking about is unequal distributions of power and how that gets misused.

CARE as an organisation has gender equality at its heart and is constantly looking at how we can address some of these deep, often systemic, issues around the misuse of power and how that leads to exploitation for people, especially women and girls. We are focused on getting to the root-cause of problems, challenging such dynamics and leading by example. We are focused on being truly representative of the communities that it seeks to serve, actually listening to local voices, but also challenging the structures that perpetuate inequality.

Dan: Diana, for listeners who are interested in the not-for-profit sector and perhaps considering a board role, what advice or tips would you give to those people?

Diana: These board roles are as serious and as important as any other board role. What I've learnt over time is that what you can bring is a great diversity of skill. It is certainly demanding in that you should be bringing the full force of your skill and knowledge.

These skills help you know what questions to ask, what suggestions to make and to be able to be confident to question management as appropriate. I think that it's incumbent on anybody who's on the board to bring the full stretch of their skills to it. We are enormously lucky at CARE because management makes that job as easy as possible with the level of professionalism it shows.

Dan: What's the best way our listeners can support Care Australia right at this moment in time?

Peter: The best way to do so is by jumping onto our website,, or calling the free phone number 1800 020 046.

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